JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Captain Kieran Read returns to the New Zealand team as coach Steve Hansen on Thursday named his strongest available side for their last test in the Rugby Championship against South Africa in Pretoria on Saturday.
Read, who had back surgery last year, had been allowed to miss last week’s 35-17 win over Argentina in Buenos Aires, instead travelling directly to South Africa and avoiding part of an arduous two-week trip.
In his absence New Zealand clinched the Rugby Championship for the third successive year, but will be determined to finish with an away win over the Springboks, who upset them in Wellington 36-34 last month for a rare blemish on the All Blacks’ record in the southern hemisphere competition.
There are three other changes from last Saturday’s starting side with first choice Aaron Smith returning at scrumhalf, veteran Owen Franks back in the front row and Jack Goodhue getting the nod over Ryan Crotty at centre.
Crotty, TJ Perenara and Ofa Tuungafasi drop to the bench.
There had been some speculation that Hansen might continue with some experimentation now that their World Cup opener against South Africa is less than one year away.
The selection, however, is a clear signal that the world champions want to restore their dominance over the Springboks at a sell-out Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
“Test matches between the All Blacks and Springboks are always intense and dramatic contests, and we expect this weekend will be no different,” Hansen said in a statement.
“It’s a test match that everyone in New Zealand expects us to win. The fact that it’s an All Blacks-Springboks test match makes it even more exciting and it’s one that we’re really looking forward to.
“South Africa are playing with a lot of confidence and after their two recent wins, their confidence levels will be even higher. So we’ll need to respond with real purpose, composure, belief and intensity.
“While our preparation this week has had to be slightly modified because of our travel, it has still been thorough, which should put us in good stead for Saturday.”
South Africa will name their team later on Thursday.
Team: 15-Ben Smith, 14-Waisake Naholo, 13-Jack Goodhue, 12-Sonny Bill Williams, 11-Rieko Ioane, 10-Beauden Barrett, 9-Aaron Smith, 8-Kieran Read (captain), 7-Sam Cane, 6-Shannon Frizell, 5-Scott Barrett, 4-Sam Whitelock, 3-Owen Franks, 2-Codie Taylor, 1-Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16-Nathan Harris, 17-Tim Perry, 18- Ofa Tuungafasi, 19-Patrick Tuipulotu, 20-Ardie Savea, 21-TJ Perenara, 22-Richie Mo’unga, 23-Ryan Crotty.
Reporting by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Peter Rutherford/Greg Stutchbury